Sam Nhlengethwa - 'Jozi People' at the Goodman Gallery
by Brenda Atkinson
Sam Nhlengethwa says he "had fun" making his exhibition of new works at the Goodman Gallery, and walking into the show this spirit of production is contagious. 'Jozi People' realises Nhlengethwa's long-time ambition to image the diverse human rhythms of inner-city Johannesburg, the morphing urban realm where he himself is based, and which he considers one of his greatest inspirations.
The exhibition seems, at first glance, to be colourful, uncomplicated, cheerfully commercial. A crowd-pleaser, even, one that allows Jo'burgers to believe in that happily integrated cosmopolitan fairytale so crucial to survival in the suburbs. Although it includes paintings, lithographs and installation, the majority of the works consist of collage and oil on paper. Smart, sophisticated and good to look at, their combined effect generates an upbeat Afro-euphoria that practically screams at you in 13 languages. This, it seems to say, is the South African Tourist Board's highest version of itself.
But the pull to look and relook, rather than move on and out of the gallery, is situated in a compositional strategy which, given the stated agenda for the show (an ebullient form of homage to an endlessly mobile muse), is odd and unnerving. Unlike Nhlengethwa's well-known and jam-packed jazz collages - in which jarring visual elements cram the surface area of the raw medium, creating the impression of dense, warm, and pulsating human interactions - these arresting new works are marked by a cool condensation of urban bustle to its iconic essences.
As might be expected from the title, these icons mostly take the form of people, but Nhlengethwa also makes intriguing use of the built environment in which they are so carefully positioned. Walls and buildings, while somehow instantly evocative of atmosphere and place, are either utterly flat colour fields (often featuring small, square but opaque windows) or are collaged of elements that make the wholes suggestive but ultimately generic.
The relative scale of the figures beside and in front of them gives visual emphasis to the buildings' looming, inscrutable facades, distorting conventional perspective and conveying an unsettling sense that all is not as it seems. In addition, the people - whether creating a colourful queue or going about their business on the streets - seem to have nothing at all to do with each other. Some smile out at us; others hunch under caps into the collars of their jackets; some are even positioned for conversation. But the sense of their individual histories and trajectories undercuts the initial impressionistic gestalt of the bustling and connected collective.
Several works take this odd sense of disassociation to striking visual extremes. For example in the diptych The Healer Around Fordsburg (set up as the keynote work of the show), the eponymous healer occupies front and centre of the sparse visual field, her body facing us, clad in the sangoma's hia, a totemic animal skin hanging down her front. Her broad, relaxed face is turned to the side, apparently laughing at an event we cannot see, perhaps even at a memory. To her right, a brightly dressed black South African woman in a floral doek walks by in expressionless profile, possibly looking up towards a broken window set into a blank wall. Behind the healer, a gypsy woman leans from another window, staring into the middle distance. At left, also in profile, a Muslim woman, entirely veiled, walks by.
Similarly, in Picking Up Fruits, Concert Poster and even Recycling, there is a palpable sense in the yawning blank space and the angular figures of fatigue and isolated introspection - a sense carried through into the simple line drawings of the lithographs. It's a cross-current that makes this show much more interesting than it sets out to be, and entirely appropriate as a tribute to a tricky urban muse.
Until November 3
Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
Tel: (011) 788 1113
Fax: (011) 788 9887
Hours: Tues - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 9.30am - 4pm